The day I made these shots I was woken up by surreal yellow light coming through the window of the shack.
We’ve stayed at this beach each summer for thirty or more years and I’d never seen this before. The early sunlight had snuck over the hills and hit some low cloud and drizzle before it bounced back towards us. At first I seriously thought something was wrong until I worked out what was going on. Of course I grabbed a camera but I was not really prepared – my Nikon F2 wasn’t loaded so I made a couple of frames on my daughter’s FE but I thought I’d missed the opportunity. Sure enough, by the time I’d put a film in the F2 the light had passed.
It doesn’t bother me now, but at the time it did. I really thought I’d stuffed up and I was cross with myself. I knew I’d missed the best of it and it would be weeks before I’d see if there was anything at all worthwhile on my daughter’s film.
Beach holidays are a good time for reflection, and that’s how it played out for me. Usually I’d check the light half an hour before sunrise but this day I missed it. I was disappointed because I’d missed what I saw as an opportunity to add to a body of coastal work – something that I considered important and serious because I might use it in an exhibition or a photo book or – let’s be realistic here – I might post it on Insta.
But then as the day wore on I lightened up a bit. I guess I could describe it as a “get over yourself, Dave,” moment. It brought home that I was overlooking why I like photography and what it’s really all about – the fun aspect. What’s the point if it’s not fun? So I decided to try and have fun.
I took the film containing the missed light out of my Nikon F2 and put it in my Nikonos III. I’d shot maybe six frames on the F2 and while transferring the film to the Nikonos I screwed up again and trashed the first couple of frames on the roll.
So I just thought about having some fun and making some nice frames. I was thinking about composition and colour and tone. I started thinking about what would work on that roll. The clouds that had given us the rain in the morning were still around and we had warm intermittent rain. The light was nice and soft, and the sea was grey-green. I was shooting Portra 160 and I like the way the Portra renders this kind of green, so I thought I could get something interesting.
The Nikonos does not have a meter, so I figured that with the overcast conditions “Sunny 16” would become “Overcast 11” and if I shot at 1/125s and f11 I’d get a bit of movement in the raindrops and zone focussing would be pretty workable.
If you ever want to see how aperture and focal distance affect depth of field, then the Nikonos lenses are great. They have a really nifty scale on them that shows how it’s all related.
The Nikonos III is such a brilliant camera. I’ve never owned a Leica and if I get misty-eyed over an M3 I just slap myself and say “but you’ve got a Nikonos III.” It’s beautiful, a masterpiece of design and a functional work of art. That viewfinder is something else too, and once you get used to the wierd-arse shutter/wind-on lever it’s great to use.
Issie and Joe were going for a swim, and of course Charlie the handsome kelpie would come along with his tennis ball, so we were set.
Because the rain was hitting the water I started thinking about Japanese watercolours and how the Japanese artists rendered rain, and how that might work on film.
Issie and I have taken lots of photos collaboratively. It’s actually because of Issie that I started shooting film again after giving it up when digital became practical. I gave her my old FM body and she took it around the world a couple of times before it finally broke. We went on a trip to New Zealand three years ago and she was shooting film so I took some film as well and my return to film sort of took off from there I think.
She gets a bit cross with me if I try to direct her, but she was tolerant this day, and also directed some of the shots herself. From memory she wanted the shots facing the camera and I wanted the shots facing away, and we got some of each.
These shots are fun, but they are also thoughtful. The compositions are all pretty carefully considered. Nothing is pre-planned, but I was conscious of wanting a foreground and background, and I recall that for some reason I was also thinking in triangles.
So the shots are about composition, tone, colour and rendering. But they’re also spontaneous. I had these ideas in mind but it’s not like they’re set up. The process was just switching on my brain, going with the situation and being part of it, remembering to pre-focus then moving and waiting and being ready to press the shutter at the right time. We shot half a roll and it took about ten minutes all-up. These needed to be shot on film – digital would not have given the same feeling. I think it’s important to work in empathy with your medium. And perhaps most importantly these shots are about having fun. The process involved a lot of crouching down and falling over when a wave hit and a fair bit of trying not to bang the camera on a rock, as well a great deal of throwing the tennis ball for Charlie.
So that’s that. When I got the film back I was pleased so I thought I’d share the story. Thanks for reading.