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My 1967 Nikon 'F':
42 years a companion
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Photographed last week in glorious Trichrome colour - my 1967 Nikon F, nicely brassed. Don't be fooled by the exposure counter displaying a film in the camera - it's broken along with almost everything else.

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Taken on the Nikon and a borrowed Nikkor 200mm, Masai Mara, Kenya/Tanzanian border, 1978. I have about a dozen of this Cheetah. She had just killed a Wildebeest and wasn't going to leave it alone, so we could get far closer than would be considered acceptable today.

in 1978, when I was 17, I was sent on a two month trip to Kenya to stay with relatives of my elder brother's then partner. It was quite an eye opener. It was the first time I had been out of Europe, first time I had flown, and the first time I had been on a holiday without family. Much is very clear and distinct in my mind. I went on the footplate of steam locomotive that was still in use on the state railways (shunting, mind, not main line; Nairobi is hot in July, but the footplate noticeably hotter still) and went on numerous safaris, and saw pretty much every animal I could. We went to the Masai Mara for the Wildebeest migrations, the Aberdares, Ngong hills, Longanott crater - and then all the way up to Lake Rudolph where I caught a massive Nile Perch on a fly rod with a spinner.

I was also in Nairobi when it was announced That President Jomo Kenyatta had died, and the bustling city was shut and deserted in less than twenty minutes - and stayed that way for a couple of hours until people started to open up again - with a great sense of national mourning. We were preparing to go on Safari and picking up supplies, and it was difficult to get traders to accept money, as, in their grief, they kept on saying that 'money wasn't important anymore.'

The Kenya excursion was quite a trip, and one that I still need to write up properly. I even learned a smattering of Swahili, a few words of which are still in use in the Fforde household today. 'The Dobi' for the utilities, and 'Fundi' meaning an expert.


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Wild Dog with what looks like 'Tommy' AKA, Thommsen's Gazelle. Kodachrome taken on the Nikon with probably the 200mm. When I was with Bill he used to relay the light reading from his hugely superior Nikon FM. August 1978, Masai Mara, Kenya.

Dad decided I needed a proper camera to go to Africa with so sent me with a reflex Mamiya 500 and three rolls of Kodachrome-64. I promptly left the camera on the roof of the Land Cruiser and destroyed it, so the hunt was on to find me another. As it happened, my host, Barbie, knew a lot of photographers and a fella came round with a camera to sell. I wish I recalled who it was as photographers like Bob Caputo who worked for the National Geographic and Leo of Stern magazine often stayed in the same house. It was probably someone quite notable as the camera, despite being only ten years old, was fairly knackered and well used. It came with a 50mm lens and two photomic heads. A TTL one and an external metering unit, the latter of which I still have, along with the original instruction manual.

I cost me 18 which was about 120 in today's money, probably what it is now worth. Little actually worked on the camera. The shutter speeds were slow, the wind-on stiff from a drop and the exposure counter didn't work - it was stuck on 34 shot, which it still is. The release was stiff, too. Even today you half press it to get over the friction, then can release it without too much camera shake. I've dropped it a couple of times, but it just bounces - I joke that you could probably knock tent pegs in with it.

The lens was excellent and still is, but the huge plus point, quite aside from the fact that it was a Nikon - which was an amazingly grand camera for me to own - was that Bill (who also lived there and who I roomed with) had a Nikon too, and a 200mm, 400mm, and 90mm macro. I used the Nikon for the rest of the trip, and shot a grand total of three rolls of Kodachrome and 5 rolls of FP4. It was the most I could afford, and I used the film sparingly.

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I had my first trip in a light aircraft in Kenya, too. A Cessna 172 out of Nairobi heading up country somewhere, never much over 500' because of the already high altitude and hot, thin air. This is what Treetops, the game lodge, looked like in 1978.

I came home and went back to school, and the Nikon stayed with me, cataloguing student life and started a love of photography that I still hold. I was in charge of the darkroom at school, and did a lot of work there - although most of those prints, and a stack of negatives, are now lost. I even bought a new F90X in the nineties, my first and to date, only 'bought new' camera. I have a goodly collection of lenses still, ranging from the flary 14mm f/2.8 all the way up to the sharp-as-a-knife Mirror 1000mm f/11, with a few exotics in the middle, like the low light 50mm f/1.2 and the wonderful 28mm f/2, my usual lens of choice. My current personal tally of images in the 'Fforde Image Archive' now number 170,000. Not a lot for the digital age except only 5000 are digital - all the rest are on film.

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Ice cave in British Columbia, 1980. Nikon F, Kodachrome, 28mm wide lens. Guessed exposure. Not even Kodachrome can do justice to the ultramrine hue of light in the cave. I was constantly being dripped on, too. I have a feeling it might have been dangerous, too.

Despite my forays into medium and large format and my reliance today on the Rolleiflex as my usual go-to camera, 35mm is a wonderful format to work with. Light, small, easily transported, point and click usability, cheap as chips. I never go above 100ASA Delta as I detest grain so much, and properly utilised, with a tripod and the camera at optimum aperture, Pan F or Delta 100 rated 50 35mm can actually give staggeringly good results. When I got back from Africa it was my only camera until 1981, when replaced by a 2nd hand Nikon FG.

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The Nikon was used a lot for my last two terms at school, and even achieved my highest grade GCSE with it - a 'C' - and without any input from my teacher, who didn't like me very much. (In his defence, I was probably supremely obnoxious) This pic was taken in early 1979, and is on a post outside a row of houses opposite the Comprehensive School, Totnes - I was walking into 'Totters' Saturday morning to buy my copy of 2000AD and a sherbert dab.
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Taken 1979. I used to cycle into Paignton now and again, usually to go to Mansell's, the model shop as my aviation interests then comprised of building models out balsa wood, putting an engine in them, launching them - and watching them crash. Such fun. If you climb up the pedestrian rail bridge, you will likely see a similar scene today, but without the crossover. It was a stone's throw from here that I saw Grease when it first came out - in a cinema now demolished.
 
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The first (abortive) attempt to blow up the Gold Mine on The Mask of Zorro, 1997. Nikon F, Kodak Tmax 400, Nikkor 28-80mm zoom.

The Nikon sat on the shelf for quite a while, past my move to autofocus with the F90X, but found renewed use as a viewfinder on The Mask of Zorro . We were shooting on Primo Anamorphic which are excellent optically but large and heavy and annoying to put on a viewfinder to find a camera position. I had a box of the smaller and less sharp 'C' series anamorphic lenses for handheld and viewfindery stuff, but my Nikon, with a zoom calibrated for lens sizes and a ground glass with anamorphic framelines, was a very quick and handy reference guide - we used it a lot as both Phil (DOP) and Martin (The Director) liked to keep up a good pace. Zorro was shot single camera except for action - Martin and Phil liked to shoot every shot, arguing that it was quicker and easier to focus in on one camera, rather than the faff and sometimes compromising quality and polish of trying to make a shot work for wide and close at the same time. In this, they are totally correct. The plus side was that I always kept the Nikon loaded with film, just in case a photo op popped along. Not with the stars, obviously, as that's a no-no, but behind the scenes. Like when we blew up the Gold Mine. As above. We'll have that story on Day 100, which might be where we say goodbye to Jasperland.

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I still use the Nikon today, when I want a little retro hit of nostalgia and to give it a little workout to stop it getting gummy. It performs as well (or as badly) today as when I bought it, and the camera and lens have never been serviced.

I took this picture in May 2020. It's of the photographs I keep on the mantlepiece, and is taken with the 50mm lens that came with the Nikon. L-R: Jasper (aged 5) brothers Mathew, Adam. Center: My grandmother Stella, aged about 15. With the Model A Ford, Dad when a Flight Sergeant, based in Canada in a snowy 1942. Out of focus above him, my Mum, aged 17, setting out from Llanveynoe on a pony ride, around 1944. Mum is 93 now and sitting in that chair over there as she's in lockdown with us, but Stella and Dad are long departed.

I won't ever get rid of the Nikon F, because I owe so much to it. It nurtured a love of photography which went on to my career as a camera assistant, and from there to becoming a writer. Seeing the world through a reflex viewfinder is like focussing in on a small patch of STORY, and when you press the shutter, that thin slivver is recorded; a moment frozen in time. Sometimes I used to just watch things happen though the viewfinder, pretending it was a movie I was seeing and making, and that sense of using the framelines to focus in on what is important, and frame out the extraneous was both excited and intriguing.

The framelines surround stories in books, too, but are more elastic. The way stories are told, the way they are presented, the focus we can give to detail, the subtle suggestion of a narrative just outside the frame, something we know is there but unsaid.

I think I might have liked to be a photographer, and may even have been quite good, in time, but I would not have stayed there forever, as recording the stories of others would never have been enough. But it showed me the way to go, and of that I am truly grateful. My Nikon model 'F' is one of things I want in the coffin with me when I go - and loaded with film, because, well, you never know.

Recalled 13th June, 2020


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