Compact Photographers

35mm Compact Photographer #14 – James Fox-Davies

My name’s James and I’m originally from the West Midlands in England but have lived in London for past 20 years. I run a construction company in the city and spend my days driving around Central London going from building site to building site.

I get to see some interesting properties and meet a wide variety of different people from all walks of life, which is great. I also get to spend time in different neighbourhoods for weeks or months at a time which means I really get to know bits of London that are off the beaten track.

Specifically, I live in Barnes, South West London, with my wife and son. Outside of photography and work, I’m semi-addicted to hot yoga and science. I’m a member of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and attend at least one lecture a month – on anything from Nanotechnology to How to recreate a mammoth.

I also take a lot of courses (in the last year alone: about 5 photography courses, a bee keeping course, a butchery course, and in the past even a longbow making course). These are all great opportunities to take some photos.

As a result of getting into photography, and in an attempt to meet new like-minded people (and as an excuse to get down the pub) I’ve set up the Barnes Photographic Society in my local neighbourhood in order to get together with other photographers close by.

How long have you been taking photos?

I’ve only been into photography for a few years. My wife is a photography dealer (New York and London) and critic and so I’ve spent the last 8 years or so going to photographic galleries, exhibitions and fairs all over the world where I’d meet lots of photography collectors and artists. (A real highlight was getting to know the late, great, Rene Burri. My wife had a lot more history with him than me but the few occasions I met him really inspired me into to taking my own photos.)

As a result of meeting all of these people I got quite knowledgable about the art form of photography without really understanding the process.

All of that changed when we were expecting our son and my wife suggested I buy a digital camera (a fantastically compact, yet functional Lumix GX7) to record the pregnancy, birth and subsequent family life.

Having an interest in ‘how things work’ led to a DSLR beginners course, then Intermediate course, followed by countless other courses and lecture (Wet Plate Collodion, anyone?). A film photography course caught my attention at the Double Negative Darkroom in Hackney where I got the chance to shoot 35mm black and white film, process it and then create prints. From there on I was hooked and haven’t looked back in terms of growing both my technical knowledge of the process and a deeper understanding of film cameras, lenses and accessories.

What sort of photography do you enjoy to partake in the most (street, landscape, etc)?

The styles of photography that I enjoy seem to ebb and flow with whatever artist I’m following at the time. Some of my favourites are Simon Norfolk, Alex Prager, Jeff Bark, Tim Walker, Adam Jeppeson, Ofer Wolberger, Tina Itkonen, Henrik Kerstens and Sally Mann. I enjoy trying to take a particular style and see what interpretation I can make of it. In London it can be easy to slip into taking photos ‘of things’ and I really have to be disciplined not to fall into that trap.

My hands down, all-time, absolute favourite film camera is the Leica M3 double stroke. I’ll hopefully be doing a short piece on this site about the what and why so I won’t go into too much detail here; but it really feels right to use this camera for me 90% of the time. The other 10% is taken up by a Polaroid SX70 which I love using at parties or when out with mates as everyone loves taking instant images home with them (post digital-age children get pretty excited too); an Olympus Trip 35 for when I want to pack light, a Nikonos V for the beach, a Hasselblad XPANii for when I want something cinematic and a Hasselblad 500 (very early version) for the occasional medium format portrait. I’m also putting together what I hope will be a killer early Nikon F body, lens, finder combo. More of that in the future (it’s a work in progress).

How big a part of your photography life are 35mm compact or rangefinder cameras?

35mm rangefinders are where it’s at as far as my photography is concerned. As mentioned earlier the M3 with a 50mm lens is my go-to camera and lens. And if I’m going away I throw an 85mm and a 21mm into the bag to cover most eventualities. I no longer own any Leica glass (I had a V4 35mm Summicron for a while which had a nice character) and prefer 3rd party manufacturers – the 85mm is a Canon LTM and the 21mm is an Avenon SuperWide. I also own the 16mm f8 Hologon that Hamish has reviewed on this site.

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What about the experience of shooting with them appeals to you?

The process of taking analogue photos really appeals to me – from loading the film to the limiting factors of (usually) only having aperture and shutter speed to play with. Having to use my brain to get certain shots which with a digital might be a straightforward ‘spray and pray’ is really rewarding. Not to mention the excitement of waiting for photos to come back from the lab (Peak Imaging in Sheffield) and I do a bit of black and white development at home, when I have time.

Do you feel they have affected your style? become part of it? or are the reasons for it…?

I think that film cameras affect the style of my photography by making everything that I do more considered – by making me leave the house with a finite number of rolls of film (of a specific type – black & white, tungsten balanced, daylight balanced etc) and with a vision in my head of what I want to achieve. I also find that aesthetically, there is still something about film that feels more natural than digital. I’m sure digital will get there in the end but at present there’s something that still jars with my digital output. I also find the workflow more manageable with film. I currently shoot mainly Cinestill 800T and 50D along with Ilford HP5 for black and white.

What is it specifically about these cameras that appeal to you so much?

The science geek in me really enjoys the tactile nature of these camera and lenses. The M3 setup that I have is built like a brick (a brick that will outlast me and will, in all likelihood, be passed onto my son). Film is still giving me more enjoyment than digital (although both have a place in my bag) in that I find the process both therapeutic and challenging.

What was the path to this shooting habit? How did you discover it appealed to you?

Like a lot of people who start on digital, I got really bored and depressed by taking endless photos of the same thing and then losing interest in the edit to the point where I realised I might as well not have taken any photos at all.

I still do it even now – take 20 photos of the same scene, import them into Lightroom – take 20 minutes deciding which one I like, then spend 10 minutes in post-processing. I found early on with film that when I’ve taken one photo of something, it’s usually either terrible and never gets looked at again, or I love it. I rarely do much post processing with my scans – maybe ‘up’ the contrast with some of my older lenses.

Show us your favourite/best image(s) taken with a compact or RF?

My favourite images:

Cinestill 800T shot with the M3 and Canon f0.95 50mm at a wedding in Lincolnshire. I think the 800T really suited this shot of the 1980’s tribute band. Nailing focus with the 50mm wide open was not easy but that night taught me a lot about how to use various techniques to focus in low light with a RF.

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This photo of the bench was taken out walking my dog around Barnes Common (a common theme in my photography). I love these benches dotted around with tributes to local residents. This was shot with the M3 and 50mm again but this time on Portra400.

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One of my many courses was at the Ginger Pig butchers shop in Marylebone High St. I went with 2 mates and thought it would suite Cinestill 800T – the combination of artificial lights and the textures of the meat and stainless steel of the equipment was really interesting. M3 and 50mm again.

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Kew Gardens – another Portra400 with the M3 and (I think) the Canon 85mm LTM.

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