Learning Film Photography: A Year with the Canon AE-1

A year ago in July when I was back in the states, I went in to a camera shop and asked the shopkeeper for a manual camera with no automatic settings. He had two cameras in the shop to offer me and recommended the Canon AE-1. It was one of the earliest cameras that sold in the millions and because it had an automatic aperture setting, was easy to learn to use. I listened to him explain ISO, shutter speed and aperture and tried to keep it straight. I didn’t think I quite understood very well, but was determined to shoot it in fully Manual mode to teach myself how to use it.

I shot my first roll of film in my last few days in the states, and took it to Kristal Foto, a shop in Istanbul that develops and prints film, eager to see my results. It was blank, as I hadn’t loaded the film right. I must not have paid much attention or asked the right questions. Ah, well, it’s an investment, I reminded myself, as one of the employees showed me how to properly load the film. I shot another roll around Istanbul, but now that the film was loaded properly, wasn’t quite sure how to take it out, and broke it.

After finding the user’s manual on the internet I discovered the film rewind button on the bottom of the camera. Now that I had learned to load and unwind the film, surely I would be more successful. I got a few shots in Istanbul, but then was heading down to Olympos, on the Mediterranean coast for a few weeks.

Many of my first shots detail the adventures of Sirene the alicorn
This translates to something like “nevermind” in Turkish

While in Olympos I was happy to find that I was able to remember how to load and unload film, and on my return to Istanbul I took them to Kristal Foto. As I opened my package and flipped through the pictures, I felt like a kid tearing through presents on Christmas morning.

Part of the reason I wanted to get into film photography is because I wanted to learn how to use the dark room and to make my own prints. A friend in Istanbul told me about a local art space in Kadikoy, my neighborhood, that rents out a dark room. I went there one day and was disappointed to learn that I couldn’t develop and print my color photos, that their dark room was only suitable for black and white film. You can only be creative with black and white, Omar, an artist who runs the place told me before disappearing back to his work upstairs.

The dark room still remained a goal for me, but for the time being I was going to keep shooting color, trying to improve, and at some later point in the future I would start taking black and white photos.

Over the next few months I wandered through Istanbul, excited at the prospect of being able to see Istanbul in a new way after seven years of living here. I started taking my camera with me when I went to see friends, going to work, running mundane tasks, or even discovering new places in Istanbul, like the dizzying Ferikoy flea market, or the Hayyam Pasaj, with five floors of camera shops and repair places, the Grand Bazaar for photo geeks.

In December and over Christmas my younger brother came to visit for about ten days, and he likes photography as well. He had a course in university and likes working in the dark room too. He was taking some cameras along with him that he had in a box from our grandparents’ home, along with a lot of film, so I figured that this was a good time for me to see what shooting in black and white was like.

We were busy. It was his first time visiting me here, so I had plenty of places to take him and we had a full schedule of things to do. He walked 100 miles in ten days, and I was working during the week. By the time he left for the states again, we were both ready to relax for a few days.

We made friends with the cats,
fed the seagulls on the ferry to the islands,
had a feast at my favorite borekci on Buyukada,
and we hiked to a first century obelisk, on a service road in an olive grove, just before sunset.

In January for the winter break, a colleague and I decided to take a short trip to Bulgaria. While most of my photos from Bulgaria itself were disappointing, I liked a few that I took in the train station, as we stood in line, waiting for one sleepy official in a dim, uninviting office to stamp everyone’s passports.

In February, my older brother came for his annual visit. He stayed for about three weeks, and we were able to escape Istanbul on three consecutive weekends. When he first arrived, we had a weekend in Iznik together.

For resting when work in the olive groves becomes too strenuous

On our second weekend, we decided to go to Bolu, in Turkey’s western Black Sea region, where I hadn’t been before. In Bolu we used Gaia, an application for hunters. It helped us to navigate through valleys, dirt roads, snowy trails, dried up riverbeds, and bushwhack over ridges. Where one trail ended, we could judge the best way to find the next closest trail by the topography.

A dog took it upon herself to guide us from one village to the next.

I had Kristal Foto develop my photos up until this point, but was getting fed up with poor quality service. Rather than paying someone else to give me prints I was unhappy with, I decided that it was time to go to the dark room myself to see if I could do a better job at it.

At the studio in Kadikoy Omar explained to me the developing process, as well as how to work the enlarger and make prints. To make my scans I use a digital camera, then using Photoshop and Lightroom, I am able to turn them into positives and play around with them a bit. I think the process of working with the negatives is helping me learn to better consciously compose my shots.

My first rolls of film that I developed were from our third trip, which was to Cappadocia, along with a few remaining shots in Bolu. I had been to Cappadocia in 2012 with my parents, and being somewhat familiar with the terrain, was excited to show it to my brother and see what was available to us in terms of hiking.

In Cappadocia we hiked more than fifty miles in three days, and were pretty spent by the end of it. We congratulated ourselves on three weekends perfectly executed, bade our farewells and resumed our respective existences. I went down the rabbit hole a bit further and started spending time in the dark room.

Tractor in Bolu
Working with the negatives helped me figure out this annoying light leak, which I have since fixed.
In Cappadocia
The “Love Valley”
I couldn’t resist.
The Sirene photos continue, albeit with less frequency

It’s been a good year with the Canon AE-1. This summer I have another couple of cameras I’ll try out on some adventures, which I hope will result in some nice shots.

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