Wednesday, 18 August 2010

My camera family tree. The FD era. Part 0ne

I was looking through the cameras for sale on which is a Swiss version of Ebay.

Just looking. But one particular camera body caught my eye. It was the “legendary“ Canon  T90. Designed by famous Italian designer Luigi Colani. The last professional level manual-focus camera from Canon, and the last professional camera to use the Canon FD lens mount.

It was a beautiful camera then and it still looks futuristic today. This got me thinking about other cameras I have owned over the years and what I thought of them.

The first camera I ever used was a Halina Paulette electric. It belonged to my dad and he loaned me it when I went on holiday to South Africa with the school. I must have been about 13 or 14 years old.

Image by "Just Curt" on Flickr

I was living in Rhodesia at the time and because of sanctions on that country, film was expensive and hard to come by. My dad loaded it with a 24 exposure roll of 35mm. Enough for two weeks holiday.

He ran me through the basics of using the distance scale on the lens, then using the needle in the viewfinder together with the aperture and shutter speed rings on the lens, how to set the exposure.

I had a great holiday and was the only of our group of about thirty boys to have a camera.

Fast forward to 1979. I was in England, it was Christmas and my folks asked me what I wanted for a present. I chose a Russian Zenit E camera. I think that my only criteria for choosing this camera were because my dad told me that “you can change the lenses without fogging the film”. Technical stuff indeed.
Zenit E with Industar 50mm f3.5
My camera was equipped (as in the above example) with an Industar 50mm f3.5 lens. As with the Halina, you had to use match needle metering to set the exposure. First you would focus with the lens set to its widest (f3.5) aperture, Then  select a suitable shutter speed and turn the aperture ring on the lens until the needle hovered in the middle of the display. At first I thought that the darkening of the lens was a special effect to give a “night time” feel to the pictures. It was useful however because it taught me better than any book can about the relationship between shutter speed and aperture.

The Zenit was built like a tank. I bought myself some additional lenses, a 35mm and a 135mm and my fate was sealed. I was hooked.

I began to photograph anything and everything. From sports events to friend’s portraits. At sports events, it would take me 11 seconds to change lenses. The lenses in question had a 42 mm screw thread mount.

As my interest in photography grew, I began to devour anything I could about photography. I took books from the library, I bought books on the subject (some of which I still have), I spent all my spare money on photographic magazines. I also shot almost exclusively in Black and White. I joined a local camera club and picked up hints and tips to feed my growing hunger for photographic knowledge.

As my interest grew, so did my desire to have a ”better“ camera. One day, I saw an advert from the electronics shop, Dixons, for a Chinon CM-3 camera with powerwinder. I went to the shop and played around with a demo model and immediately fell in love with it. 


Again, as I was out of work and trying to freelance, my wonderful parents helped me with the purchase of the camera. This camera was the business!! It had a traffic light system of light metering plus the enormous advantage of not having to stop the lens down before taking a picture. All you had to do was focus, and then turn the lens aperture ring until the middle green LED lit up. However, the biggest kick for me was the powerwinder. This was Chinon’s name for an autowinder. It had controls on it such as an intervalometer  which allowed the taking of pictures every 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30 seconds and you could tell it how many frames you wanted exposed 4, 8, 12, 16, 24. Heady stuff for an impressionable photojunkie such as myself.

For a while I used the Zenit and the Chinon side by side as they both had the same M42 lens mount. Eventually though I picked up another Chinon and sold the Zenit. Now I felt really professional!

I began to take more and more pictures. My work improved and one day a ballet dancer friend of mine asked me to photograph her for an upcoming production. I remember photographing her in the sitting room of a derelict house with a stocking stretched over my lens to give a soft focus effect. She was pleased with the results and they went on display (with my name of course) in the front window of the local bank.

I began to receive bookings for weddings and other types of social photography from people who had seen the images and the work slowly started to increase in volume.

Although freelancing can be interesting, I was constantly looking for something a bit more stable so I answered an advert in the back on one of the photographic magazines for a portrait photographer wanted in Stuttgart, Germany.

I had forgotten all about it until a month or two later I received a phone call from the studio owner telling me that he loved the example pictures that  had sent him and would I like to come over to Germany to work for him.

The job in Germany wasn’t quite what I expected (or was led to believe). It involved door to door canvassing from Monday to Friday on American army bases in (what was then) West Germany.

Days were spent cold calling and trying to make appointments to come back in the evening to persuade the family to book a portrait session. Saturdays and Sundays were taken up with photographing the family’s who had booked us.

This wasn’t quite what I had in mind so after a few months I quit. I didn’t however want to go back to the UK with my tail between my legs so I decided to stay in Stuttgart. In order to save money (for film of course ?), I slept for three days in a row in a youth hostel (the maximum time allowed) followed by a couple of days in my car. Alternating between the two. This lasted for two months until one day, a friend told me that the photographer at the local army base was going back to the States. I decided to try my luck and went for an interview.

I was taken on as an (civilian) American Army photographer based at the Public Affairs Office. This was 1982.


This was a fantastic time for me. I was photographing everything from portraits, sports days, military manoeuvres, medal presentations and newspaper stuff to send back to the states. I sold my two Chinons and treated myself to a new Canon AE1.

The AE1 was shutter priority or manual. I preferred shutter priority as I favoured action photography. My work camera (the camera supplied for my job), was an original Canon F1

This came in a metal case with lots of accessories including hoods, finders etc. It (like my first Zenit) was built to take knocks. I was in camera heaven. They also thoughtfully supplied a 35mm and a 135 mm which also fitted my AE1.

My quest for more photography experiences led me two years later to quit the job and fly to South Africa on spec.

Before I left the Army job I was presented with an official commendation by the US government for my photographic work.

I immediately found a job in South Africa doing progress photos at a paper mill owned by SAPPI Fine Papers which was bang in the middle of the bush at a place called Ngodwana. It was a six month contract and I loved it. Again it was a new experience. I also had to attend a video making course.

When the contract finished, I found work in Johannesburg with the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM). Another great job with interesting people. Varied and interesting work including regular flights over the bush in a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter and all sorts on other photography including forensics, portraits, progress stuff etc.

Best of all, they had a fully stocked photo equipment cupboard.

I was issued with two Nikon F3’s and a selection of lenses plus a Metz 60 series flash gun. 

Unfortunately the F3’s weren’t up to the job. In six months I went through six bodies. Just little things like the metering wouldn’t meter or the flash synch wouldn’t fire the flash or readings would show false information etc. I went back to using my own Canon and as a treat I bought myself a Canon A1 with the Motor drive MA. The Motor drive added bulk to the body but improved the handling especially when shooting vertically. One particular feature that I loved was that when shooting in single frame advance, you could immediately change to high speed advance simply my pushing in a small white button that fell naturally under your little finger.

My time at ESCOM came to an end due to my “itchy feet” syndrome and I moved to the UK. London in particular. After a spell as a photolab manager I decided to freelance in London. I was doing everything from door-stepping to breaking news, demos and the inevitable “grip ‘n grin” pics.

It was around this time that the T90 (as mentioned at the beginning of this article), appeared on the market. So I sold my beloved AE1 and purchased the Colani designed masterpiece.

It was small, Light, all curved design with six integrated motors to handle rewind, film advance, shutter cocking etc. The amazing thing was that all this came from only FOUR penlight batteries!!

I loved it so much that I sold the A1 and bought another T90 body.

But the FD lens mount era was drawing to a close. It was 1987 and something big was stirring in the world of Canon photography.....

Tune in later for part two

Till then. Keep shooting.


  1. Very cool, you've led a life I can only dream of being stuck in a paper mill in a backwoods city in Ontario Canada. I have or have owned all the cameras except the T90 (so far). Interesting and I look forward to the second installment.

  2. Hi Curt and thanks for the comment.

    We actually have three things in common. We both use Canon, I have also worked in a paper mill (as a photographer) and I have Canadian relatives :o)

    PS I am really jealous of your camera collection.