Big Bubbles (no troubles)

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Training Wheels

A valedictory for my Nikon F80

My F80 is up for sale on eBay, after over twelve months sat unused in a bag under the bed. It’s a great camera, but obviously I no longer have a use for it and, well, let’s not get sentimental about this - I’d rather use the money to buy something else (coming soon: Voigtländer review).

If you want to put this in fashionably dramatic terms, you could say it was digital that did for my F80. With its spot meter, it was an ideal camera for shooting slides. However, to really get the detail and resolution of which transparencies are capable, you need to shoot ISO 100 film. That means using a tripod in anything less than bright daylight, an option that has never sat well with spontaneous picture-taking enjoyment and became untenable once the Junior Research Assistant tagged along on our family outings. Added to that, the slides had to be scanned for practical use (since I’ve never owned or wanted a projector), a process that was generally tedious (especially the dust-cloning, much worse with reversal film) and unrewarding since so much of my colour work was…meh. Slides are great for the armies of photographers who enjoy shooting wide angle, saturated, “postcard” landscapes, and rather less appealing for most other genres. Hence Velvia (although personally I preferred EBX, if only because it lent your shots a bit of distinction compared to the majority).

Compare this with using a digital SLR: the minimum ISO is 200 and you can easily increase that without significant or unrecoverable loss of quality. You can use matrix metering and check the histogram to tweak the exposure, rather than bracket, and you can bracket without wasting frames. The output format is native to your PC. You have a better chance of pulling shadow detail out of the raw file. If you really need wide angles then true, you have to buy a new lens but there are low cost zooms (you don’t need fast apertures for landscapes). And even a basic Nikon DSLR has most or all of the features of the F80. It’s a done deal; bye-bye F80.

That said (not least because a potential buyer might be reading this!), the F80 was a great camera to use. Comparatively lightweight; almost every feature you could want (including gridlines in the viewfinder) bar some esoteric extras like mirror lock up; lovely, smooth and quiet shutter action. I bought my F80 in 2002, a few months before a big vacation in New Zealand. In fact, I wrestled with whether I even wanted a camera (“Photography? Stupid, pointless, frustrating waste of…feh!” - I still feel this way a lot) and spent the preceding week telling myself I wasn’t going to get suckered in by another dumb consumer gadget, right up to the moment when I burst into the store waving my Visa card around and demanding my new toy NOW. It was my first proper camera and the results were outstanding, simply leagues beyond all the crappy compact shots I’d been used to all my life. In the early stage, your photography is mostly rubbish or at best unremarkable, yet you’re insanely pleased with almost every shot…look at the colours, look at the sharpness, oh wow. It’s great for the individual concerned and bloody awful for anyone else expected to share the results.

Needless to say, I’d left it too late to develop my skills sufficiently before the holiday, and thus returned with several rolls of decidedly…unremarkable prints. Most of them sit unloved in a carrier bag at the back of the wardrobe to this day. There was a variety of attempts at bad landscape work in unsuitable conditions and little notion of attempting travel documentary, which might have more profitably borne fruit. Exposures were generally accurate, thanks to the camera. Compositions were appalling, thanks to me. Of course, the pictures were beautifully sharp and colourful, even the twenty-odd shots of the world’s most boring sunrise at Kaikoura (I got out of bed at 5am to do that, yet have no shots of the fantastic meal we had in the relaxed little beach bar down the road).

The picture here was taken a year later and was chosen because I can vividly recall the day on which it was taken. We were in Berwick-upon-Tweed, breaking our return journey after an enjoyable time camping at Aviemore, and went for a walk along the coast path out of town, past the Elizabethan barracks. We’d holidayed in Northumbria a few years previously and hadn’t much enjoyed it - even in September, it felt like winter - but although it was the same time of year now and not much brighter (distinctly damp and misty in fact), it was at least mild. I had the F80 with the Nikkor 50/1.8 lens fitted, having abandoned zooms by now and built up a decent set of primes (24-50-105). It was loaded with XP2, since I was also starting to heavily prefer monochrome. (It has to be said, it was a monochrome day, and still is in my memory.) And suddenly, things began to come together. Using a wide aperture, I could isolate close subjects and produce some appealing, minimal compositions offering a quiet, intimate portrayal of what I found. Image after image appeared to resolve successfully in the viewfinder and the dull, grey town felt like it offered myriad possibilities. The shot here was taken after we wandered down to the beach (yes, Berwick has a sandy beach, although there’s a large, smoky industrial plant visible on the opposite shore). I lay down on the sand and focused on a few lone strands of dune grass growing out of the ripples. The mist deadened sound, so we felt fairly alone and relaxed, looking out at the sea. For once, I didn’t feel like I was having to work at it and could enjoy the moment and enjoy taking pictures.

Soon after this trip, I began to move away from using the F80 in favour of a secondhand manual focus Nikon EM (still my favourite camera) for purely b/w work. I didn’t need the fancy metering, the automation and certainly not the autofocus for the subjects I was taking. I also didn’t need the bulk they added to the camera body. And I did my best to swear off slides, helped by results that grew steadily worse even as my negatives improved. I found some further use for it at home, attaching an enormous flash unit and shooting colour prints of the JRA, but film is an expensive choice for children. The D50 arrived. The F80 was retired, its purpose fulfilled. I hope its future owner enjoys using it.