5 Frames with an Olympus OM1, a roll of HP5 and a Bridge
I have a few film cameras that all mean something emotional to me (my Olympus XA2 I won in a photographic competition aged 12, my OM1 was my only camera for about 20 years until I added my Minolta Autocord, the Nikon F801 is a copy of one I took travelling around the world and I look after my Dad’s Nikon FE that he bought when I was a nipper) but I don’t use them anywhere near as much as I should, not least because I love my digital camera (Fuji XE3) with it’s perfect blend of retro feel, image quality, size and convenience.
With this in mind I have been looking for excuses to use my film cameras and all the lovely rolls of Ilford HP5 I have bought over the last year or so. Hence I have come up with a project to photograph some of the bridges over the River Thames near to where I live using a maximum of one roll for one day’s shooting.
My first choice was the Runnymede Bridge that carries the M25 over the Thames just to the north of Staines upon Thames. They are actually two bridges (the other one carries the A30) but they are just a few feet apart and usually referred to as one bridge. It / they are a magnificent structure built from concrete and brick facing, started in the 1960s, expanded with the building of the M25 motorway in the 1980s and expanded yet again in 2000s when the motorway was widened so it is now the widest road bridge in the UK. It is an amazing structure that creates beautiful shapes and strong diagonals, shadows and angles and challenges the dynamic range of the film.
Using the OM1 again was wonderful. The three lenses I own, the 28mm f2.8, 50mm f1.8 and 135mm f2.8 are nothing overly special in themselves, but has there ever been a range of lenses so tactile and delightful to use as the small Zuikos? The camera was a delight and balanced beautifully with all three lenses, although I’m not convinced that the light meter is functioning absolutely accurately. In the dark of the shadows, the famed viewfinder of the OM1 with its huge and bright image helped composition. The HP5 seemed a perfect match for the camera and transported me back to my late teens when this was my go-to combo (unless I could only afford the cheap colour neg film from Boots).
I was not quite so cheerful once I had scanned the negatives though. I develop the film myself and scan the negatives at home on my Epson flatbed scanner, so, while not exactly cutting edge, it is the only way that film photography is remotely affordable. Compared to the digital images the negs were a disappointment – lacking contrast and, worse, regularly spoiled by hair and dust. I live in a small flat with a family and three dogs so perhaps hoping for perfect images is an unattainable dream, but film negatives still need an awful lot of work, or at least in my hands, when compared to digital files.
So is it worth persevering with my film based project of the bridges? It is too early to say ‘no’ and shooting the OM1 / HP5 combination was a lovely experience. I can not foresee a time when film photography reverts to being my first choice, but when the mood takes me and I feel the need to step backwards from the perfect electronic Fuji masterpiece and towards something more imperfect and personal, then I will reach for one of the cameras that mean so much to me and head out to the bridges over the River Thames.
There are also some lessons from the day. Firstly, that film seems to have a narrower dynamic range than a modern day digital sensor. Second, 28mm is a wonderful focal length. Thirdly, the Zuiko lenses are fantastic and the OM1 is an amazing piece of engineering. Fourth, I need to check the light meter, or at least remember that a centre weighted meter works the photographer harder than a modern multi segment / matrix (or whatever they are called) meter. And lastly, that I should get my OM1 and probably all the other cameras, cleaned and serviced, but that pushes up the cost of film photography still further and I have a beautiful little XE3 to which I can attach the Zuiko lenses just sitting there, smiling at me……
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