Sometime this month – I can’t quite remember exactly when – it will be the 10 year anniversary of the day I launched 35mmc! In recognition of this, I thought I might tell something of the story of the website, how it came about, what’s happened since, and maybe something about the plans for the future…
I launched the website when my eldest, Connie, was 1 and I was 30. I’m 40 now, and she’s at high school. I mention Connie as, in my mind, she is inexorably linked to the birth of the website. Apparently having kids changes you life in lots of ways – who knew?! I have told this story before, but the gist is that at the time I was really bored of digital photography. I had been buying up a fair amount of vintage lenses (before they were as expensive as they are now) and taking lots of arguably fairly poor images with them mounted to a Sony Nex-5. I’d initially found this quite inspiring, but this was short lived, especially as I had found myself struggling to take even vaguely in-focus photos.
I distinctly remember a moment when I was trying to take a photo of Connie in her pram in a carpark of a garden centre. I got the image I wanted, but there were a few specific factors within the process that I really didn’t enjoy.
Primarily, I didn’t really like the camera, nor did I particularly like the images I was getting out of the Angenieux Retrofocus type R11 28mm f/3.5 lens. But this was compounded by the fact that I also needed something that was more practical. Focusing manual focus lenses whilst also pushing a pram is hard work. As such, not only was I not getting on with the kit I was trying to use, I found myself profound uninspired… which felt a little tragic when I had a young child to photograph.
At that time, for a little while in fact, I had been thinking about what I could do to increase my enjoyment of photography. I’d seen a short documentary (or possibly a news report) about a Birmingham photographer who’d been using a point and shoot film camera for years and had been getting great results. Point and shooting a point and shoot struck me as something I could do a lot more easily, even with a pram and kid in tow.
Of course, this was back when film was pretty much at its all-time low ebb. Kodak had gone into administration the previous year, full frame digital cameras and these new-fangled compact mirrorless cameras were the hot topic! This played into my hands a little, as when I next went into London Camera Exchange and there was a Yashica T5 Super D on the shelf, Gareth, the then shop manager, agreed to let me have for £30 (maybe £35, I can’t quite remember).
I bought it, stuck a roll of Iflord XP2 in it, and even from that first roll got a whole load of images I couldn’t have been happier with! This image – another of Connie – is the one that really sticks in my head.
Not only was I thrilled with how easy it had been to take the photo, but I was also aware of factors within the process and outcome that impacted my emotional response. To begin with, there were small things such as not being so bothered that I had cut off her toes in the framing – something that would have probably seen me scrapping a similar digital image.
I think I also tapped into something from my formative years. I’ve been shooting film since 1994 when my nan had bought a 9-year-old-me my first point and shoot film camera. I took that Nikon RF-10 with me whenever there was some sort of family occasion, holiday, school trip etc and loved the experience of using it. It had been the start of a life-long passion for photography that had eventually seen me shift to SLRs, then various digitals when they came out, and eventually onto shooting and collecting all sorts of cameras. Whatever camera I tried though, I don’t think the joy of shooting that little Nikon point and shoot ever left me.
I rediscovered that joy when I found the Yashica, and I was immediately point and shoot hooked. It was just so much easier than trying to shoot the kit I had been struggling with. It was more satisfying too. I just had to drop the film off at the high street D&P shop and within the same day I got a CD back with some scans that hardly needed any tweaking in Lightroom to have a look that not only appealed to me, but was consistent from frame to frame. This whole process just felt like a much better to fit into where I was in my life at the time.
In fact, I was so impacted by the positive emotional experience that I decided to start a blog writing about my 35mm compact camera experiences.
35mmc (the ‘c’ for ‘compact’) was born.
I soon joined twitter in a bid to attempt to promote the website. I found the film photo community on there, started chatting to folks, sharing my thoughts and pictures and, to my surprise, people started reading the website. In fact, this wasn’t the first photography website I had created. I had set up an old blogger, and even a forum which in its day had seen some not inconsiderable success success (in fact, I have recently been working on the forum again, and intend to link it more to 35mmc… but that’s a story for another day.)
This was different though, 35mmc was entirely focused on a topic that really inspired me to go out, find cheap point and shoot cameras, shoot them (mostly taking photos of my young daughter) and write about them. I was, looking back, more inspired by photography than I had ever been, and probably have ever been since.
35mmc began to grow
The next step I took with the website was where the fun really started. I was a regular reader of Japan Camera Hunter at the time, and somewhat inspired by the “in your bag” series where Bellamy featured content submitted to the website from the community, I decided to get in touch with a few of my then-regular readers to ask them if they wanted to submit stories about their experiences with point and shoot cameras. The very first article with content written by someone else was an article titled, ’35mm Compact Photographer #1 – Stewart Duffy – A Trip 35 man’ which you can read here.
Interacting with those early contributors really added to my inspiration. I felt like I was part of a community, and I think, I hope, some of those who wrote for the website felt like they were more part of the community by contributing to 35mmc too. In those early days, when film photography was on its knees, I think being part of a small online community appealed to people. It certainly did me.
The next really exciting step, and arguably the one that brought the most attention (and reader submitted content) to the website in those early days was the decision to send my treasured Yashica T5 travelling around the world. The “Traveling Yashica” started its travels. The camera was sent from one photographer to the next, each would shoot a roll then send it on.
This lasted a few years in the end – how many miles the camera travelled, I have no idea, but it was a lot. In the end, I decided to axe it after the value of the camera increased significantly and people started getting stung with import duty. Someone trying to steal the camera was the final straw. I still have the camera now though, and have recently loaded a roll of Xp2 into it. I shall write about that 10-years-later-experience when I get the photos back.
Expanding the niche
Of course, over time, my experiences with film photography began to shift. Sometime before I’d set up the website I had bought a bunch of rangefinder equipment. Previous to that, I had been through a major period of collecting Nikon manual focus SLRs, and I still had my old AF Nikon SLRs from before then too. In short, I had a lot of gear that was being sat unused whilst I explored the tighter niche of compact cameras. I’d also bought myself a camera I had craved for years – a Leica M7.
In the end, I buckled and decided to start talking about those rangefinder experiences. You can read about my early justifications here.
Of course, whilst my intentions to keep the compact camera niche were initially strong, once I had opened the doors to one different type of camera, over time, I let way to other different types of cameras. There was growing interest from readers who wanted to submit content about other types, sizes, formats of cameras too, so at some point, I don’t really remember when, I let the niche slip and opened the floodgates.
By this time, I’d also started working with a few brands. Reviewing kit for Leica and Zeiss, as well as a host of smaller brands. I enjoyed this to begin with – writing about the Leica M60 and matching lens back in 2015 was a real thrill. This was the first Leica digital camera without a screen – it was a limited edition and with its matching lens was worth about £25k. Despite this – to my surprise – Leica UK were happy to loan it to me. You can read the review here.
I reviewed a few other bits of Leica kit until Rachel (the great-to-work-with) PR person left Leica UK, and two of their newer (much more snooty) PR people were more than a little rude me at Focus (the big photography event at the NEC at the time). Sod them I thought, and stopped even attempting to get in touch. In fact, that was probably the beginning of the end of me seeking relationships with the larger mainstream brands. I reviewed a couple lenses Zeiss loaned me after that – including my longest ever article about my favourite lens, the 50mm ZM Sonnar. Zeiss were always great to work with, and very accommodating, but with so many other websites reviewing the same mainstream cameras and lenses, at least for a larger part I decided to stick to talking about gear that was less commonly written about.
Settling into the expanded niche
I have written about more mainstream kit since, as have many of our contributors, but that experience with Leica was probably a big part of what set the direction for 35mmc from then on. It was around that time I started to see 35mmc as a website about “alternative” photography gear and practices. Be that more esoteric kit, or just generally kit that I saw scorn being poured on by the mainstream – either way, it felt like it had more of a home here. This saw me building relationships with brands such as Lens Baby and Lomography for example. Over time, this then translated into a lot more content on the website appearing from people who were experimenting with all sorts of weird and wonderful alternative processes, people who were modifying or adapting gear, or just using kit that – be it film or digital – didn’t fit the mainstream ideals around photography. All this sort of content seemed to fit an expanded niche perfectly.
In 2017, I then had the idea to launch a series with Em from Emulsive. “5 frames with…” it was to be called. Initially the plan was for these articles to be ordered, some on here, some on his website. My first 5 frames was with a pinhole camera I shot on the beach – you can read about that experience here.
Over time the process of trying to run the series on both websites together became quite complicated and in the end we just ran these series separately. Part of the reason it became complicated was the sheer volume of content we started having submitted to the websites. I don’t think either of us were able to keep up with it particularly well. In no time, I went from publishing 1 or 2 articles a week to 5, then to 7, then sometimes more.
This was when the site really began to grow, both in size and in running costs. Costs got so high that I eventually buckled, and introduced ads onto the website. Of course, no one wants ads, but with the amount of hours I was putting into the website every week, editing all the articles that were being submitted, paying the increasing hosting fees etc, there was really no way around it.
The big tidy-up
The website was also becoming desperately unwieldy. As you can see in the screen grab above, I had whole sections for “guest posts” discrete from my own content. This had made sense when I was still writing the lions share of the content, but as I started to get more and more writers, more and more of whom were coming back and writing multiple articles for the website, it felt odd that I should be the centre of attention with content from others being almost sidelined.
A rebrand happened. I considered changing the name, but decided against it. With this I integrated the guest content into the rest of the content on the website. This felt a lot better, but still the content was a mess. The tagging system was chaos, the menu was confusing, content was hard to find. But the job of fixing it all just seemed insurmountable.
That was until covid came along. Like most people, I found the responsibilities of my day job(s) reducing and so had more time on my hands. Looking back, I didn’t deal with it all that well, and decided to bury my head in a process of reorganising all the content on the website, renaming, retagging and recategorising every single article. I think I spent about 3 or 4 weeks, 8 or more hours a day on this process. The funny thing was, I’m not sure that many people noticed… a few did though, and I felt a lot happier with the structure of the website. For the first time since I launched it, it didn’t just feel bodged together.
This was when what I see as the 4 key overarching topics were born: Reviews, Theory & Reflections, Tutorials & Knowhow and Photography & Project Work. Categorising all of the content in this way, again, felt like it opened the doors to more different photography topics being explored. And actually, another few years down the road, we have what I feel is a richness of content I would have never dreamed of a decade ago. Since then, I have also added the News section to the website, which whilst only a small portion of what we do here, to me at least, feels like it fits nicely within the ethos of the website.
The ad-free experience
The final piece of the puzzle, at least as far as the inner-workings of the website goes, has been the introduction of a more formalised ad-free experience. In fact, for a long time now, anyone who contributed to the website was able to experience it without adverts. Additionally, I had a subscription service that allowed folks to subscribe to the website for a nominal amount of money and enjoy it without the ads getting in the way. Unfortunately, the older ad-free software didn’t work very well, and I never really promoted the fact that contributors didn’t see ads. I knew that the former needed fixing and the latter was a waste for a long time, but didn’t have the time to sort it.
I finally buckled this time last year and launched “ad-free 35mmc” formally. Now, in case you didn’t already know, anyone who writes for website gets ad-free 35mmc for life. And for anyone who doesn’t want to write for the website, there is the option to contribute to the upkeep for £2.99 a month. I must admit, I am certainly not going to be retiring off the adverts, or the new ad-free subscription fees, but we have seen a big increase in new contributors and the community really feels like it is blossoming again!
Simplified design / a “community blog”
It was this tweak to the functionality, the blossoming of the website, the large growth of new contributors, and a few messages from regular readers that finally made the need for another tweak to the design of the website click in my head. A little while ago I started referring to 35mmc as a “community blog”. It made sense in my mind, but there were a few pieces of the puzzle missing. After sorting out the ad-free 35mmc problem though, when I thought about it, the only thing that I felt didn’t work about the website was that the homepage design felt a bit clunky. More specifically, the big header/slider thing at the top began to feel entirely superfluous. So, I got rid of it. I moved the website to a new more simple theme, spent some time tweaking and adjusting it to look somewhere in keeping with the previous design and relaunched. It’s still a work in progress – as some of you have noticed – there’s a few little bugs, but I’m getting there and overall feedback has been very positive. More than anything else though, it now really is a blog with the latest content on the homepage and a menu across the top – what more could it need?!
Me and the team
These days, I don’t write as much for the website as I used to. Most of my time is spent behind the scenes editing, talking to contributors and potential contributors, and generally keeping the website on track and on-niche. I steer the ship, so to speak, in terms of the type and the tone of the content that is published, and still write when I find the time. I also still moderate, and/or edit every single post that is submitted, not to mention keeping an eye on comments.
But, more than any of those things, behind the scenes, I still find myself building relationships with photographers from all over the world, who – were it not for this website – I would never have come into contact with. Through that, I also now have a small team. Sroyon Mukherjee and Molly Kate are the current paid members of the team, but Holly Gilman and Johnny Sisson have both had paid roles in the past. I also have a small behind-the-scenes team of – lets call them – “voluntary advisors” which includes Agata Urbaniak, Jem (Jeremy Strange, as he appears on here) and Nandakumar Narasimhan who have varying levels of input into my decision making. All of them, in one way or another have helped find and increase the volume and diversity of writers for the website too. They also help keep me sane (cheers guys!!).
Of course, all has not been smooth running. I have had various hiccups over the years, but he worst happened a few weeks ago. Having decided to refresh the design of the website in time for the ten year anniversary, I decided to enlist some help from my ads and CDN provider. We were on track for making some improvements to the speed website when I managed to break something. No problem, we should have been able to revert to a backup. It then turned out there were issues with the backups. This all happened just before I was due to go on holiday too… you can probably imagine the stress. Fortunately, the hosting company and the team at F8 (my day job) were able to piece it back together from bits of backups and get the site back up and running.
This process also uncovered a few other gremlins in the system that needed to be fixed. No problem I thought, I will get to them… and then, just the other day, someone managed to gain access to one of the accounts on the website and posted some content they shouldn’t have been able to. Some of you might have noticed this (sorry…), hopefully it didn’t make it to most of you… It certainly made it to me, and yet again my stress somewhat piqued.
As a response to this, I decided to pull the website off the internet altogether for most of a day. We did a significant security audit, created a 3rd backup system, and when I had the confidence that all was secure and the website was all working as it should, I relaunched it… This, as you can imagine, is all stuff I could have done without in the last month before the ten year anniversary! It’s stuff I could do without happening ever, in fact…!
So what next? Well, if it’s possible to have a silver lining from all that recent nonsense, it has made me realise that I need (or perhaps want) a little more peace of mind when it comes to the hosting etc of the website. As such, I am currently exploring a relationship with a new (much more expensive) hosting provider. I’m hoping this will allow us to speed up the website, as well as help solve some of those weird niggling little issues that some of you email me about from time to time. I have also, as mentioned, been working on the forum (RPF) a little bit more and have been thinking about how I could bring the two website more inline with each other – more on that soon!
Aside from all that, I have been really pleased with the direction of travel the website has been going in. I really feel like the areas of content that are discussed on here are a good fit to a certain type of photographer who is a little less than interested in the mainstream. I also really like the community feel, and the continued lack of trolls we have compared to some of the big mainstream photography sites – these are both factors you guys tell me you really enjoy too. We have also had some really great contributions lately, and moreover an increasing volume of contributors and readers telling me they feel like they have found a home here as part of the 35mmc community. In short, the big plan, the masterplan if you like, is… wait for it… to keep doing what we have been doing. Though, of course, I am all ears if anyone has any big ideas for features they would like to see on the website moving forward.
Which just leaves me with the final job of saying thank you! This website is a huge part of my life, and I hope it continues to be for the foreseeable future. It has, of course, been satisfying to see it grow. It’s also been more enjoyable than it has been stressful steering it through all the changes and issues it has been through over the years. Admittedly the last month nearly tipped me over the edge a few times… but we are there now, and all feels well again. More than any of that though, the thing that has given me the most amount of pleasure is seeing and being part of the online community of readers and contributors to the website. The time so many of you put into sharing your thoughts via contributions to the website, comments on contributions, and even just turning up as regularly as so many of you do to read and enjoy the content continues to humble me. Thank you, to all of you, for being a part of 35mmc!
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