The photograph that made me a photographer

Early spring crocus
Kodak EasyShare Z730, 2007

When I was a kid, I was constantly frustrated with the quality of the photographs I made with my cheap point-and-shoot and garage-sale cameras. Some of my frustration was due to my lack of skill in composition and in knowledge of exposure. But most of it was due to the poor quality of the cameras I owned.

Yes, I’m blaming my equipment. The new cameras I could afford were in the $10 to $20 range. That meant plastic and pot-metal parts and single-element plastic lenses. They were better than nothing for recording one’s life, and I’m glad to have those long-ago photographs. But man, do I wish the photos were actually sharp and detailed.

In the mid 2000s I bought a used Olympus point-and-shoot camera on eBay for $20, and was thrilled with the clear, sharp photos it made. My compositional skill was still garbage, but at least whatever I aimed the camera at came back sharp and colorful with lots of detail.

I bought that camera to document the road trips I was just beginning to take. Even though the total cost of a roll of film plus having it developed and scanned cost less than $10 then, I didn’t have much disposable income. Film and processing would be an ongoing cost. An inexpensive but decent digital point and shoot cost about $150, or ten rolls of film. The math was clear: digital was less expensive in the long run.

I ended up buying a Kodak EasyShare Z730. It boasted a well-regarded Schneider-Kreuznach lens, and got terrific reviews. Kodak was selling refurbished units directly at a good discount.

I made this image of a crocus in my front yard shortly after I bought the Z730. I had never before been so blown away by an image I made. The detail in the flower and the mulch, and the rich rendition of the crocus’s purple petals and orange pistil, impressed me deeply. I was pleased with the good separation of subject from background that this camera achieved.

I credit this image with drawing me into photography as a hobby. Thanks to my experience making and appreciating this image, I’ve sought to learn about composition and exposure. Over the years since, I’ve built some good skills in making pleasing photographs, all thanks to this crocus.

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21 responses to “The photograph that made me a photographer”

  1. Szilvia Virag Avatar

    Just testing if I can reply. Having some strange problems with the wordpress reader.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Success! ✨

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Have to say there’s that “ah-ha” moment where something happens that reveals the possibilities. You are correct that with film photography, it was usually making that move from an amateur camera, to your first camera with a decent lens, and more controls, like shutter speed and f/stop. All of a sudden, things start getting more controllable, and repeatable.

    One thing I noticed about the digital future, is that when I was roped into judging photo contests for schools or companies with photo clubs, or would see the high school photo club contest results on display at our state fair, the difference between the film era and digital era was shocking! In a one or two year period, the results on display went from self made conventional prints that might be “off contrast”, or too dark or light, too dirty or having spots on them; to a minimum quality level that was far above what had been seen before! All of a sudden, those mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/cat/dog pictures were presented with very clean output that was being produced automatically. In a way, end of an era, since the amateurs weren’t struggling though making their own prints anymore, and could hopefully concentrate of subject and composition. On the other hand, a buddy of mine that was also roped into the same judgey service, said he had to start rejecting photos that had way too much sharpening, contrast boosting, saturation, and a lot of what he referred to as “computer abuse”.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      In this way, the equipment really does matter. If I had gotten a decent camera as a teen, even a basic SLR with a kit 50, I might have taken to photography a whole lot earlier than I did. I am sure that even then the pleasure of a clear, sharp, detailed photograph would have been very compelling to me, just as the image of this crocus was.

    2. P Avatar

      Interestingly, I saw exactly the opposite, Andy. Once digital came on the scene, the percentage of quality photographs I saw dropped off a cliff. And it wasn’t just the “computer abuse” issue your friend noted. It was everything. Even beyond the poor quality of 99.9% of what was being produced, the soul of photography was lost. Everybody thought they were a photographer producing art, but they were anything but. This is still the case. In fact, it just keeps getting progressively worse as digital cameras become more “advanced.” I’d argue in the film era most professional photographers were truly professionals. Since the emergence of digital, I’ve had more personal experiences with “professional” photographers that were truly awful photographers than I can count. In the film era, every professional photographer I had dealings with actually knew their stuff, inside and out. This is abundantly obvious just looking at my own family’s studio family portraits over the decades. The quality is night and day, with the film images printed traditionally blowing their more recent digital counterparts away. I can see this in my family members’ wedding photos, too—the film-based images are exceptional; the digital-based images are, to be blunt, horrible. Frankly, I despise what digital photography has done to the field. I know a lot of people will disagree, and that’s fine, but in my opinion, digital has altogether ruined photography.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Well P, I kind of agree with you re: professional photography, but I was talking about how for amateurs, the young kids doing digital have a certain physical quality level that was unattainable when film was around and they were trying to do their own lab work for contests and the like. I wouldn’t say they’re pumping out striking photographs from a subject level. I heartily agree that for professional photographers, or people calling themselves professional, the results can be pretty sad. I had to get into image and department management years ago to stay employed, but I was remarking to someone else the other day that younger people calling themselves professionals don’t even know how to “light” anymore using ancillary lighting equipment. Couldn’t do a food set up for a retail box label, an annual report where you had to pose people and light a room, they can’t do lots of what just would have been normal photo work 40 years ago. For the most part, all gone. I’m pushing 70 and I can’t even in load my last lighting kit of 5 monoblocs at a reasonable price because no one knows how to use them where I live?

        1. P Avatar

          Yes, it’s just plain sad. Technology is not helping humanity. And I’m not talking about just with regards to photography; I’m talking about all of it. It’s turning everyone into impatient imbeciles without any real skills, the ability to comprehend/understand/remember anything of value, or even the ability to think for themselves at all. We’ve steadily been going backwards now decades. It’s reached a point that is beyond alarming.

          If I lived near you and had the space for lighting equipment (I don’t on either front), I’d definitely take what you’ve got.

  3. Roger Meade Avatar
    Roger Meade

    So in my case it was not a photo but an accident that made me a photographer. In the early summer of my tenth year, I broke my leg while playing ball. A few weeks later we headed “up north” on vacation, me in a cast and on crutches. No swimming, no kick the can, or “capture the flag” in the near future.

    On a trip to town for groceries Mom spotted a small card shop/ camera store that had Kodak cameras on display in the front window. She inquired if I had any allowance saved, and I did have a few bucks. She gave me a few more and told me to go pick out a new camera and get some film. That was a Kodak Starflash 127. It kept me from terminal boredom those weeks in the cast. That winter she bought me an FR Development kit as a Christmas gift which put me into darkroom work.

    Those were probably the two best gifts I ever got, as they had more effect on my life than any others

    1. matt Avatar

      Getting some Rear Window vibes here!

      1. P Avatar


    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      My story is about how 25 cents changed my life – my grandmother gave me a quarter to buy an old Brownie at a garage sale, my first camera. Yours is a lot more interesting – how a broken leg changed your life!

    3. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Plus One for FR photo chemistry kits! My first “taste”! What ever happened to them? I swear I was using FR X-100 developer, but cant seem to find any reference to it, only X-22. Got a lot of great results with FR in the day.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Just found this online. In years of occasional searches, this is the first time this came up. It explains a lot about the name!

  4. Ben Avatar

    Hi Jim,
    Photography has been my hobby for over seventy years. Like you I experimented with less expensive Kodak cameras in my early quest for perfection in photography without much success. However, the AH-HA moment was when a Doctor friend of mine loaned me a fairly new Rolleicord camera and I took some photos of my then girlfriend. I took the roll home and developed the Verichrome Pan film and contact printed the images (WOW). Then later I was able to enlarge the photos as well. That was my AH-HA moment in photography. The clarity and exposure was right on and the detail amazing. I began to save my money and when I was in the service I purchsed a Canon SLR camera with the a normal 50mm lens, a 35mm wide-angle, and a 200mm telephoto. I was in business then and have continued to photograph mainly using film since then. I did manage to come kicking and screaming into the digital age with three different Nikon cameras including the latest a D780. But my true favorite is still film. The complete process from taking the photograph, the darkroom processes, and even printing. However, I do take a fairly large number of digital images when travelling. But one can certainly tell what happens when using a BETTER camera with BETTER optics and that has what kept me in the field always on the lookout for that special subject to photograph.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like I had a common experience with my first “good” camera then!

      Good old Verichrome Pan. It was the first b/w I ever shot. I’m sure it’s the first b/w a lot of people shot!

  5. brandib1977 Avatar

    I love that you can pinpoint the beginning!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Kind of fun, isn’t it?

  6. Thomas c Grey Avatar
    Thomas c Grey

    I learned something but not until I took a second look at your crocus. I read your words and went back for the second look, separation of subject and background.
    Even a blind hog ( me) fines an acorn every now and then

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Lol! Yes, that’s part of this picture’s appeal. The color is also very good, as is the amount of detail captured in the petals.

  7. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    My first decent digital camera. Still have it, love the colour rendition.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I still have mine too. I don’t use it much, maybe once every couple of years. But it always delivers.

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