Teary-eyed snappers recall the golden age of film
How digital kicked football-sized grain into touch
Interview For those readers with a tendency to get teary-eyed over the golden age of film, and the days before digital swept physical photographic media into the cutting room bin of history, we're delighted to take a trip down memory lane today with professional photographer Phil Houghton.
Phil's based in Faversham, Kent, and a long-time mucker of my brother Ash, who also lives in that sun-dappled corner of the Garden of England.
Accordingly, when I was visiting my dear old bruv, I took the opportunity to chat with Phil about just how things have changed since he was a bright-eyed snapper. So, with a box of man-sized tissues handy lest tales of 35mm film prove too lachrimose, read on...
Lester: What are you up to these days?
Phil: A bit of this and a bit of that.... used to be mainly press but now I've turned to more commercial ventures as papers turn to more reader generated (digital) content. So, nowadays it's mainly commercial, corporate, industrial and public relations imagery
Lester: Is "reader generated", a euphemism for "stolen from Instagram and Facebook"?
Phil: Image nicking is pretty much all over the place now. I've just googled my name and immediately found two of my images on a national paper's "pictures of the day" site that they've not paid for - which are also on another site credited to that paper with my name.
Lester: It appears press snappers are pretty well doomed to extinction. What do you think?
Phil: I don't think snappers are generally doomed. There'll always be a place for quality images - sports, news, fashion, etc. I'd challenge anyone to do a football match under shitty lighting in a snowstorm on an iPhone.
Lester: How did you first get into photography?
Phil: I bought myself a Yashica FR when I was still (failing) at school. My art teacher at the time convinced me that I had a more photographic eye. Crap with a brush basically.
Vintage: The Yashika FR
So I picked my camera up and went out and started doing a bit. Colour then - processed by Truprint - and you'd have to wait weeks to get your images back, invariably the majority covered in advisory stickers. Stuck with it and eventually got the hang of it.
We've all been there
Lester: What was your first press camera?
Phil: My father bought me a Canon A-1 - the nuts back then. I saved up for a motor drive, I think it did 2.5 frames a second, I thought it looked the bollocks. My mother had a Canon AE-1, but she also had a 70-210mm f4 lens - not for long. So my kit was the camera and two lenses. I was working at Customs and Excise when a job came up at the local rag.
The Canon A-1
Lester: You "borrowed" a 70-210mm lens from your dear old ma? I assume this is how the more aggressive paparazzi get started...
Phil: My poor old Ma's probably still got that zoom somewhere. She could never get on with it, so better in my kit bag than hers. You can't let these things go to waste.
Lester: Well quite. So, you pitched to the local paper?
Phil: I'd taught myself processing by then, went for the job with a hastily prepared portfolio, mostly shells, stones and bits of dead seagull on the beach at Dover and got the job. Convinced my mother that I need a pro camera and blagged her into purchasing me a Canon F-1, with the motor drive, battery packs and all the extras. A true beast of a machine. Manual focus and a proper work-out whenever you picked it up.
Lester: I had a rather lighter Pentax LX, so less of a workout but still manual focus and all that malarkey. Autofocus is pretty advanced these days, but can you see any advantage of the old ways?
Phil: When you think back you were pretty much a multi tasking machine! Trying to focus, twiddle the shutter speed dial and turn the aperture ring to balance the little bouncing viewfinder needle. I don't miss all that. The advances in the digital world, whilst making the job easier, and opening the up the magic of photography to a whole host of new "pros", has also made the whole process somewhat more creative.
Those were the days: Phil gets close to the action with B&W film
Lester: I assume you did your own devving?
Phil: Those days on the paper we were using FP4 and HP5, manically devving it all up in a sweat box darkroom placed at the top of the building. No ventilation and film and paper driers permanently on the go.
You had some idea what was going to pop out of the fix (as well as the skin off your fingers) that was the whole thing back in the day. As a snapper you knew pretty much what was doing to be on your roll of film. In those days we had to wait to see how badly we'd fucked it up. Now it's instant.
Lester: The old photographic pub bore chestnut: Fuji versus Kodak. What's your preference?
Lester: Yeah, I see the X100 has a standard Provia setting too - my transparency film of choice. How convincing are the results in imitating film?
Phil: I'll send you some examples: subtle,...
The X100 does a quick Velvia
When did you make the switch to digital?
Phil: I started working for an agency and on 25 July 2000, Concorde AF4590 crashed at Gonesse, near Paris shortly after take-off. Myself and a reporter were dispatched, with kit I'd yet to use. A Nikon D1 and and 300 quids' worth of memory card, a mighty 256 MB beast. Card reader, Macbook and a Nokia 600 something. What could go wrong?
The 2.7 megapixel Nikon D1. Pic: Ashley Pomeroy
Lester: Nothing, obviously. Nonetheless, what were the hassles of working with early digital?
Phil: It was a nightmare, postage stamp sensors, go above ISO 400, forget it. And the colour purple (not the Whoopi Goldberg film), just purple fringed images - ghastly. In those days we were working off old Mac laptops in CS1. The screens were B&W... you could just about level the image before it crawled off your laptop through some ancient Nokia or Motorola.
Lester: What kit are you currently using?
Phil: I use a Nikon D3s (sports press and most other bits), a D800 for the high end stuff. The Nikon "Holy Trinity" 14-24 f2.8, 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8, nice glass, and a 85mm f1.4 for the classy portraits, and a macro.
Digital monster: The Nikon D3s
Lester: How has your job changed since you went digital?
Phil: The job's easier in some ways. You've got a permanent "Polaroid" facility on the back of the camera, it takes the magic out of it. As a pro with film, you'd have an idea of what was going to be there when you pulled the film from the fix, now it's instant. It's what has turned so many "wannabes" into "pros".
Lester: You don't sound too impressed. Has taking photos become too easy?
Phil: Photography has become easy in the wrong hands. You still need to hire a pro if you want a polished finished product. I've found that people now realise that. My bookings have soared in the last year. People used to think "well for the price of a snapper for the day, we can buy our own camera". Very true, but then you've got to operate it, and that's where the big F in Fail comes in.
Let's give the dog a camera and he can do the snaps. Phil's mutt contemplates a future in photography
I've spent years doing this, and am still learning. You can't just pick up a brush and knock up a masterpiece. You can't just jump into a plane and fly it. It's the same with snapping, it takes years of graft to get to where we are as pros.
Practice makes perfect: Sri Lanka, by Phil Houghton
Lester: Are there big advantages of digital over film?
Phil: I'm loving the low light abilities of the digital cameras now. Cranking film up to 125,000 odd to cover a football match under candlelight floodlighting was never ideal, the grain was bigger than the ball!
Lester: It's impressive to be sure. I love that low-light portrait of me you did on the D3s. Speaking of grain, did you ever give Kodak T-Max 3200 (sadly discontinued) a go? I used to use it on TV surveillance jobs.* Fantastic.
Low-light performance: Lester by Phil and his Nikon D3S
Phil: Yeah I used T-Max 3200 - I think that was the stuff I maxed up to 128,000 ISO, in the dev for half an hour - brilliant stuff, a strange sort of green looking neg if I remember...
Lester: It was, and in tribute here's the Phil Houghton T-Max 3200 memorial image:
Phil: One final example of how digital can be really handy. At the trial of murderer Michael Stone, we were using film, probably Fujicolour 800. The first week we spent working out the flash power required to get through the blackout windows on the prison vans. The second week, once we'd worked out the exposure, we could determine the layout of the various vans.
The third and final week of the trial, some of us started to get results. This involved a lot of skulduggery with the pedestrian crossing down the road from the court, press the button, wait twenty-six seconds and you get a red "stop" light, if you get my drift.
On dig we'd have had it sussed pretty much immediately...
Right, I've heard enough. I need a stiff drink
Lester: Well, I can't help feeling it's pub o'clock. Before we hit the bar, what's your own favourite photo?
Phil: I don't have a particular favourite snap. My current best effort was taken at Dover as the "killer" storm blew in earlier this year. Love it. It's colour.
*Here are a couple of examples from the BBC's MacIntyre Undercover, way back in the 1990s, featuring presenter Donal MacIntyre and a couple of Lads from Lagos who believe they're about to take a lottery winner to the cleaners in a 419 scam.
Both are shot from an improbable distance from the back of our tinted-out surveillance van. The second is through a second sheet of glass as Donal discusses an irresistible investment opportunity inside a London cafe...